(No longer in theaters)
Yngve Sæther, Sigve Endresen, Hans-Jørgen Osnes
May 25, 2012
On the other side of the aesthetic cosmos from the formal, intellectualized Moonrise Kingdom comes the knockout Norwegian drama Oslo, August 31st, which crosses the blood-brain barrier like … like … whatever the drug is, I haven’t tried it, thank God. The movie eats into your mind—slowly. The protagonist, Anders (Anders Danielsen Lie), is a cleaned-up junkie on his first trip to the big city—for a job interview—after nearly a year as an inpatient. He’s 34, the love of his life is long gone, and his retired parents are in the process of selling their house to cover his frightening debts. Director Joachim Trier follows him for 24 hours, beginning with Anders in a motel beside an old Swedish girlfriend (barely glimpsed) on the morning of August 30 and ending with his return to a different bed under much different circumstances. Each moment of what follows is quiet—and momentous.
Movies about addicts trying to stay straight are more alike than unalike, and this one has other echoes—it’s inspired by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s novel Le Feu Follet, the basis of Louis Malle’s The Fire Within. Oslo, August 31st is even more gruelingly subjective than its predecessor. Early scenes capture the ache of a man for whom transcendence is beyond reach. What’s his problem? Nurture, nature, modern life, dopamine depletion, the noonday demon. Anders’s old drinking-drugging pal Thomas, married with two young kids and a dull job, has a crazy glint in his eyes when he opens a beer at lunch and settles down to hear about Anders’s prospects. Thomas is afraid for his old friend—he senses doom—yet seems to envy Anders’s freedom to destroy himself. Being forced to look at one’s life from the outside brings Thomas down, too.
The naturalism is fleeting, deceptive: In one scene, Trier evokes Anders’s selective hypersensitivity as he sits in a café, picking up stray bits of conversation. He can’t escape from people he has hurt, can’t employ his usual defenses. Anders winds up at a party, too vulnerable to relax, his rhythms off. The movie’s temporal reality shifts with its tempo. A blurring comes and then a sharp return to the world.
A directive I’ve read in recovery literature is “Don’t just sit there, do nothing.” Danielson Lie—who has the wiry build and injured, unblinking blue eyes of Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad—makes Anders a man who is incapable of doing nothing, whose insides churn so fiercely that he can’t even manage a mild mope. Yet Oslo, August 31st is too penetrating to shrug off as the latest piece of miserablism from the festival circuit. It’s that rare downer that leaves you wide awake, with all synapses firing.